Save Yemen's Democratic Aspirations

Autocratic Saudi Arabia and Iran may be battling for control of Yemen, but American democracy appears to be what citizens actually want. Washington should help lead negotiations to bring Yemen back from state failure.

Stephanie Baric
Stephanie Baric
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Saudi soldiers from an artillery unit stand behind a pile of ammunition at a position close to the Saudi-Yemeni border, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, on April 13, 2015.
Saudi soldiers from an artillery unit stand behind a pile of ammunition at a position close to the Saudi-Yemeni border, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, on April 13, 2015.Credit: AFP
Stephanie Baric
Stephanie Baric

For decades, Yemen has been described as “on the brink.” With President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi fleeing the country last month following a January 20 coup d’état carried out by the Iranian-backed Houthis, and a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition seeking to stop their advances through airstrikes, the country has moved beyond the brink to state failure. Confronted with a looming civil war in the north and the threat of economic collapse, the situation in Yemen has exposed the limitations of the U.S. government’s counterterrorism strategy.

Drawing on the counterinsurgency model used in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen since 2010 involved running aid programs with embedded security and military strategies. This was an effort to build the government of Yemen's credibility through political, economic and social programs targeting vulnerable populations in order to undermine terrorist groups capitalizing on citizens' grievances. But this approach ignores the complexities and vastly different timeframes of political and military policies, democratization processes and economic development.

In 2010, the U.S. government launched a two-year aid strategy that sought to address the causes of instability in Yemen by improving vulnerable populations' quality of life and the state's ability to govern. But most aid experts would agree that any strategy in Yemen founded on shoring up the legitimacy and effectiveness of President Ali Abdallah Saleh, a corrupt dictator who failed to provide basic public services after more than three decades in power, was doomed to fail. Similarly, reducing high unemployment and endemic poverty stemming from a failing economy heavily dependent on revenue from dwindling oil reserves was never a two-year task.

As the Arab Spring revolts unfolded throughout the Middle East in 2011, women and youth led massive demonstrations in Yemen to protest poverty, the lack of economic opportunity, political repression, the neglect of public services, and social exclusion. When he pledged support for democratic transitions in the region, U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed that encouraging responsive local governance was a critical element in the U.S. strategy for countering terrorism, as this measure would address the underlying grievances of disenfranchised populations and the conflicts that feed violent extremism.

In Yemen, the revolts led to a revolution and sweeping historical changes in 2012, including the ousting of President Saleh. During the two-year political transition phase, the Yemeni government organized the National Dialogue Conference , a process for reforming the country’s constitution that convened representatives from the formal political parties, women, youth, civil society, and groups from the south as well as the Houthis, who had had been in conflict with the central government for years. In January, NDC produced recommendations for legislative and institutional reforms that would offer citizens more civil and political rights. The next phase within the country’s transition would have entailed a new constitution, the establishment of credible state institutions, and national elections. But days afterward, on January 20, Houthis seized power, derailing the transition process.

In February, the United States hosted the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, which explicitly recommended promoting a counter narrative as a strategy for fighting terrorism, as the NDC had sought to do. If the terrorist narrative offers militant Jihad, fundamentalist regimes and a nihilistic rage against modernity, then the counter narrative must involve democracy, rule of law and respect for internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In Yemen, during the height of the uprising in 2011, more than 1 million protestors throughout the country demanded democratic reform. The U.S. State Department estimates that in 2014, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the deadliest branches of the terrorist organization, had less than 1,000 members in Yemen. The vast majority of Yemenis embrace democracy as a solution to the myriad political, economic and social issues the country faces.

Currently, Iran and Saudi Arabia - two countries ruled by autocratic regimes with dismal human rights records – are battling for control of Yemen. Yet if the 2011 protests are anything to go by, the United States is more the model that citizens want. Washington should take a leading role in negotiating a cessation of hostilities and getting the country back on track to transition to democracy. The United States should take a stand with the Yemeni people and support their democratic aspirations not only in the interest of countering terrorism, but also in order to send a powerful message throughout the region: Right makes might.

Stephanie Baric, Executive Director of the AHA Foundation, a women’s rights organization based in New York, managed USAID funded democracy and governance programs in Yemen from 2010 to 2013. She has lived and worked in the Middle East for almost a decade.

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